Medieval Sculpture


Table Summary

Summary of Western Medieval Sculpture
early Dark Ages
ca. 500-750
late Dark Ages
ca. 750-1000
ca. 1000-1200
ca. 1200-1500
"barbarian styles" metalwork architectural sculpture
Carolingian (ivories, Aachen doors) >
Ottonian (ivories, Bernward doors and column, Gero Crucifix)
Summary of Eastern Medieval Sculpture
Dark Ages
ca. 500-1453
Byzantine style ivories

General Features

With the fall of Rome, statues disappeared as a major art form in Europe until the Gothic age. The primary types of medieval sculpture in Western Europe were architectural sculpture (especially reliefs) and carved ivory objects (aka "ivories"), including small figures, crucifixes, relief panels, and containers. Such objects were also produced to a lesser extent in metal and wood.G250,1

Relief panels were often made to decorate altars, to serve as book covers, or in the form of a diptych.1 (A diptych, which is simply two panels hinged together, is a traditional European method of presenting two complementary scenes of painting or relief sculpture. A three-panel work is called a triptych, and so on.)

Medieval visual art is generally quite flat and stylized, as opposed to the physical realism of classical art (see Realism vs. Stylization). The transition from classicism to medieval stylization took place during the Early Christian period (see Early Christian Art).

Main Article

Byzantine Empire

ca. 500-1453

Byzantine sculpture (like all Byzantine visual art) is characterized by the Byzantine style. Byzantine visual art remained sufficiently static throughout the entire history of the empire to allow for this sweeping term. The central concern of the Byzantine style is the awe-inspiring presentation of holy figures; to this end, they are portrayed in stylized postures, serene of expression and often halo-crowned.2,3,4

Carved ivory objects were the leading form of Byzantine sculpture. Architectural sculpture did not flourish under the Byzantines, who preferred to coat architectural surfaces with graphic art (namely mosaic and painting); indeed, mosaic and painting embody the culmination of Byzantine art (see Medieval Painting), while sculpture is clearly secondary.2,3,4

Byzantine Sculpture (ivory triptych)
Byzantine Sculpture (ivory panel)
Byzantine Sculpture (ivory figurine)

Dark Ages

ca. 500-1000

Western Europe entered the Middle Ages as a fractured region, politically and culturally. The unity of classical art was succeeded by regional Germanic aesthetics known as the barbarian styles, which flourished roughly throughout the Dark Ages (ca. 500-1000). Common to these styles was a focus on decorative patterns (as opposed to human figures), often with zoomorphic elements.

The Five Major 'Barbarian Styles' (ca. 500-1000)

In Britain and Ireland, the artistic styles of the Celts (in Ireland and Scotland) and Anglo-Saxons (in England) blended to form the insular style. (“Insular” simply means “relating to an island”; thus, “insular style” is equivalent to “island style”.) Insular art is also known as “Hiberno-Saxon” or “Anglo-Celtic” art.

The barbarian styles represent the final flourishing of native Germanic art. Like other migratory peoples throughout the world, the native art of the Germanic tribes focused mainly on patterned decoration of portable objects (e.g. clothing, jewellery, harnesses, vessels, tools), in the form of leatherwork, woodwork, or metalwork (depending on the object). Indeed, metalwork (often embellished with stones) is the chief surviving form of sculpture in the barbarian styles.H351,1

Insular Style Metalwork (shoulder clasp)
Insular Style Metalwork (brooch)
Insular Style Relief Carving (original and colourized)
Norse Metalwork
Norse Woodwork (from a door frame)
Merovingian Metalwork (brooch)
Merovingian Metalwork (brooches)
Visigothic Metalwork (brooches)
Visigothic Metalwork (fragments of a cross)
Ostrogothic Metalwork (brooches)
Ostrogothic Metalwork (ornament)

Meanwhile, the human figure was restored as the central focus of Western art by the Carolingians and Ottonians. Carolingian art denotes artworks produced by the Carolingian Empire (ca. 750-900), while Ottonian art (which is founded upon that of the Carolingians) denotes works produced by the Holy Roman Empire during its first century (ca. 950-1050). Broadly speaking, Carolingian art exhibits greater three-dimensional realism than that of the Ottonians. The Carolingians injected a significant measure of classical realism into medieval art (thus reverting to an Early Christian level of realism), after which the Ottonians slid back into flat stylization.5

The Carolingians and Ottonians both excelled in carved ivory. In terms of larger sculpture, the best known Carolingian work is a set of doors at Aachen Cathedral. The most famous large Ottonian works are the bronze Bernward Doors and Bernward Column, both commissioned by the bishop Bernward at a German cathedral (St Mary's Cathedral, Hildesheim), and the wooden Gero Crucifix, which exceeds life-size.

Carolingian Ivory Panel
Carolingian Ivory Panel
Ottonian Ivory Panel
Ottonian Ivory Panel
Bronze Doors at Aachen Cathedral
Bernward Doors
Bernward Column
Gero Crucifix


ca. 1000-1200

Romanesque art, which developed from the three great traditions of the Dark Ages (barbarian, Carolingian, and Ottonian), flourished across Western Europe. Thus, for the first time since the fall of Rome, the West was aesthetically unified. The heart of the Romanesque period (and the subsequent Gothic period) was France.

The Romanesque and Gothic periods comprise the great age of cathedrals; the foremost sculpture of this age is architectural.

Romanesque Tympanum
Romanesque Tympanum
Romanesque Tympanum
Romanesque Figures (church facade)


ca. 1200-1500

To the non-expert eye, it can be difficult to distinguish between Byzantine, Carolingian, Ottonian, and Romanesque sculpture. Gothic sculpture, on the other hand, stands clearly apart, thanks to a striking new degree of physical realism. Indeed, Gothic art embodies the transition from medieval stylization to the fully-developed realism of the Renaissance.

The Gothic age witnessed the return of statues as the principal sculptural type. Gothic statues are still usually architectural ornaments, however; independent, free-standing statues would not be revived until the Renaissance. Indeed, given that free-standing statues had been worshipped by the pagan Greeks and Romans, they were firmly discouraged by the medieval Church.H262,1

Gothic Statues
Gothic Statues
Gothic Statues
Gothic Statues
Gothic Tympanum
1 - "Western sculpture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
2 - "Western Painting", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
3 - "Byzantine Art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
4 - "Byzantine art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2009.
5 - "Ottonian art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.